ASHLAND — Steven Dewey rocks forward in the skinny boat that he and three others are powering across Emigrant Lake on a brisk Saturday morning, then dips the oar into the water.
In unison, the four oars-people slide backward in their seats, pulsing the boat forward as the foursome repeats their movements just as the sun peeks over the Siskiyou Mountains.
Not a bad day at the gym for Dewey.
“This is great,” says Dewey, 70, of Ashland. “Rowing really is great exercise, and I love being out here seeing the animals, deer swimming across the lake and bald eagles chasing ducks. It’s just great to be out here.”
Dewey is one of about 100 people ranging from junior high school age to their lower 90s using team rowing through Ashland-based Rogue Rowing as a regimen for better health, better living and just plain fun on the water.
The group has rowing sessions for kids and adults in boats ranging from single, two-oar boats called skulls to larger boats for up to eight rowers working in tandem.
Those rowing a single oar are called sweepers, with some boats guided by a coxswain seated at the back to steer and softly call out rowing commands on the boat’s audio system. Those with two oars in groups up to four are scullers.
They meet Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at their lakeside boat house, which sports up to 60 boats, says Rick Brown, the club’s executive director and top instructor.
Members sign up to row when they want, developing their talents and improving physically with sessions as Brown drives the safety boat alongside them and offering suggestions through the sport’s trademark bullhorn.
“It’s nice to be doing a physical activity in a beautiful spot,” Brown says. “It’s a really fun way to get disconnected — from life, technology. Whatever.”
The rower in the front seat, which is at the back of the boat, takes on the responsibility of creating the rowing cadence that keeps everyone in sync.
“We never say any one is more important than the other, but he’s setting he pace,” Brown says.
“Each seat has its own personality, and each person’s personality fits a different seat,” Brown says. “Ultimately, though, it’s everyone working together. If one person’s not, you really feel it.”
The strokes are as repetitive as they are rhythmic, each one recreating the last stroke as deftly as possible. Rowing, Brown says, is often equated to developing a repetitive golf swing.
“You can spend your whole life trying for that perfect stroke,” Brown says.
On a recent Saturday, Rogue Rowing coaches put some of their young rowers through a series of skills demonstrations in very tippy and temperamental single sculls. The drills include standing in the thin boats, spinning around on their feet, spinning the boat with their oars, starting and stopping.
“It’s boat awareness, spatial awareness and getting comfortable with their own bodies,” says coach Jonathan Crist, the club’s head development coach.
“It’s fun stuff,” he says. “We’re basically teaching them how to row without teaching them how to row. They’re having fun and they’re sticking around.”
The skill development does more than prepare them to move up to racing boats down the line.
“We believe that teaching people to be better rowers teaches them to be better humans,” Crist says. “One of those lessons they learn is self-confidence. Now they can walk into a boat house, grab a boat and oars and be free on the water. That’s a big win for us, I think, as a culture.”
One of those young rowers killing in the skills competition was Jake Read, and the 14-year-old now is in his third season and ready to begin racing as a novice after two years of skills development in a discipline he accidentally discovered.
“My dad told me about it, and I thought, ‘That sounds fun,’” Read says. “Turns out I love coming out on the lake. It’s so beautiful. We’re lucky to have Emigrant.”
Many like Dewey have come to the sport later in life, some after years of running left them with sore knees or other ailments from more high-impact exercise.
Dewey had no background in water sports before he picked up an oar 11 years ago at age 59.
“I just thought it was time to start doing some serious exercise. I was coming up against retirement, and what else is there to do but to stay fit? This is perfect for that.”